Nichole Carter knows how busy work and life can be for a teacher. An educator since 2004, Carter has taught everything from geography and history to reading and language arts, all while balancing the responsibilities that come with running a household and raising a family.
Like many educators, she needed a way to stay organized, focus on priorities, set goals and track progress across both her personal and professional life.She tried using spreadsheets, planners, fancy Moleskine journals, and even paid for a digital lesson-planning service. These tools helped her track her work as a teacher, but they lacked a comprehensive system designed to manage and improve all the aspects of her life. That's when she discovered dot journaling.
Dot journals are designed to be customized. Unlike ruled notebooks, dot journals have a subtle grid of dots in the background of every page. The dots provide a simple framework to keep lines of written text straight and free-handed drawings square. Because these journals are otherwise blank, users can organize and design them to fit their personal preferences and needs.
Dot journaling is all about creating a custom tool, and jumping in is easy. There are many simple strategies that require little more than a journal and a few color pens to get started.
“If you've tried planners before and they just don't work, this could be something for you. You are in the driver's seat – you control what you are looking at and what you are planning for,” says Carter, who is a learning coach for Beaverton School District in Oregon.
1. Try time blocking
Teachers often use time-blocking techniques when planning for subjects in elementary school and periods in secondary school, but they don't always think about it when it comes to their own day. Time blocking is the process of setting manageable, bite-size goals with time rather than tasks. Using a journal to track time can be a useful strategy for anyone wrestling with a long to-do list because time tracking helps determine exactly how much time it takes to complete tasks. This helps people use their time more wisely, Carter says.
To get started, Carter suggests dedicating a journal page to track day-to-day activities as a way to see where time goes. Write the hours of the day across the top of a page and the days of the month down the left side to create a simple grid that can be filled in when time is spent on specific tasks. Carter recommends a color system as a way to visualize chunks of time spent on different time-consuming activities, such as checking email, attending meetings, working on projects, surfing the web, and so on.
“If we are being honest with ourselves and paying closer attention to how we are spending our time, you find that you have more of it than you think,” she says.
2. Set up a brain dump page
Carter says that she has gotten better at setting goals and achieving them because of journaling. A great first step for goal-setting with a journal is to simply create what she calls a brain dump page. Also known as collection spreads, these pages serve as catchalls for ideas and brainstorms related to big projects that are not yet tied to a specific date or time. The purpose is to provide a space for capturing related thoughts and ideas. The first 50 pages of Carter's journals are often devoted to pages like these.
“It's really just a blank page. I am just setting an intention for that idea or project, and then I can just know that I can go back to that page at the front of the journal, and I know where my notes and thoughts are,” she says.
3. Create a goal spread
When it's time to start working toward a goal, goal spreads can help people think about where they would like to go and how to get there. Creating a quick goal page is easy. Reserve space along the top of a page for the focus. Add a row of three boxes below this to list motivations, possible problems, and actionable steps toward the goal. Use the space below this to track progress, and use the bottom of the page for reflection and to jot down any related notes. Carter says she likes to put pages like these at the front of her journals, so that she can go back and add to them or reference them through the year.
“Just pick a topic or a project, put it at the top, set a timer for 10 minutes and just think. What are your to-dos for this? What do you hope to accomplish? It can be a bullet list, it can be reflection writing,” she says. “Then come back to it later to prioritize. Put a number by the top three things that need to get done first to move on this project.”
4. Order chaos with collection pages
Journals are a great tool for filtering tasks and thoughts, which can reduce stress and improve the work-life balance. Creating a collection page is a simple way to bring order to the chaos.
A collection page can be anything from a grocery list to a monthly list of appointments. The key to getting started with collection pages is to keep it simple. Start a list layout in a monthly spread. Begin by writing down big appointments and events in shorthand. On the opposite page, write in additional details as needed. Creating a central location for commitments and important dates helps to prioritize tasks and zero in on what is most important. This technique can also be applied to a weekly to-do list, Carter says.
“Once you get a simple monthly list integrated into your habits, you can start adding more items,” she says.